Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III

President #18, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #23

Read this unconditionally

Americans have never been shy about making their military heroes Presidents. They have ranged from the great (George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt) to pretty darn good (Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower) to the quickly dead (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor).

Ulysses S. Grant was undoubtedly one of America’s greatest generals, leading the Union Army to a victory in the nation’s bloodiest conflict, the Civil War. As a President, Grant is much harder to read. Back in 2000, historians ranked him #33. But, by 2009, Grant had risen ten spots in the rankings.

What had happened to Grant’s reputation in that time to pull him out of Herbert Hoover and Millard Fillmore territory? Grant’s Presidency was rife with scandals, including one where he had to dump his Vice President when running for re-election, only to replace him with a man who was caught up in the same scandal.

Josiah Bunting III, who served in the Army and also worked at the Virginia Military Institute as well as West Point in addition to writing novels, tries to present the case that Grant’s Presidency was more than just a series of scandals. He presents Grant as a leader, who while a bit too keen to delegate work to people who were not competent or honest, but also as a strong supporter of civil rights for the newly freed slaves. Grant also wins praise from Bunting for trying (although ultimately unsuccessfully) to reform government policy toward Native Americans.

Was Grant as good of a President as he was a general? No. But was he the 19th Century’s answer to Richard Nixon? No, far from that. Grant was not a paranoid man. He was not personally corrupt. He firmly believed he was always in the right. And, he never forgot his friends. Unfortunately, Grant could have benefited from having a higher class of friends.

Ulysses S. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio. When he was 17, his father, Jesse, managed to get him a nomination to West Point. The Congressman writing the nomination, Thomas Hamer, thought Jesse’s son bore his mother’s maiden name as his middle name. So, Hamer nominated Ulysses Simpson Grant for an appoint to the United States Military Academy. Grant decided to stick with this name.

Grant’s West Point class had only 39 graduates. Grant ranked 21st in his class. He served as a quartermaster at the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. But, world events thrust Grant into much different duty.

The border between the United States and Mexico in Texas was becoming subject of a heated dispute between the two countries. Grant joined what became known as the Army of Observation, under the command of General Zachary Taylor. This group ultimately forced the start of the Mexican War by engaging Mexican forces in a disputed territory.

Grant enjoyed serving under Taylor. He liked Taylor’s “Rough and Ready” approach. Grant believed it was best to lead soldiers not by wearing fancy dress, but rather by just getting the job done. Grant would always be known for eschewing dress uniforms when he could. Grant won plaudits for his service during the war.

When the war was over, Grant married Julia Dent in 1848. He was soon dispatched to the West Coast as the population there boomed because of the California Gold Rush. During his long absences from Julia, Grant began to develop a drinking problem. Whether or not Grant was an alcoholic cannot be determined, but, Grant would be branded throughout his life as a drunkard by his enemies.

Regardless, Grant’s drinking caused him to resign his Army commission in 1854. He returned home to Jesse and his growing family in the St. Louis area. After a succession of dead-end jobs, Grant and his family moved to Galena, Illinois in 1860

And, as we should know, the Civil War began in April of 1861. Grant offered his services to the Governor of Illinois. He was named a colonel of a volunteer regiment. Then, he quickly moved up to brigadier general. In August of 1861, Grant was given command of all Union troops in Southern Illinois. When the Confederate Army took over the city of Columbus, Kentucky, Grant was ordered to retake the city.

Grant’s men engaged the Confederates across the river from Columbus in the town of Belmont, Missouri. The Union won a rousing success. Grant was supposedly the last man to leave the battlefield.

Now, the Union Army was taking aim on Confederate defenses in the Ohio Valley. In the battle for Fort Donelson, Grant faced an old friend of his Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner. Buckner realized that his men were outnumbered and sent a message asking Grant for what his conditions for surrender would be. Grant famously replied, “No terms except immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted.” From then on, many believed that U.S. Grant stood for “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”

Matthew Brady's iconic photo of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor, Virginia

From then on, Grant’s military career skyrocketed. The names of the battles are almost like a roll call of the famous battles of the Civil War: Shiloh, Vicksburg (which ended at about the same time as Gettysburg), Chattanooga, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor, Richmond, and, finally, Appomattox.

Grant’s victories were not for the faint of heart. He knew that numbers were on his side. Grant was denounced by his opponents as a “butcher.” However, President Lincoln firmly believed in Grant. As Lincoln reportedly said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” Grant rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, the first man to hold that title since George Washington.

Despite the high casualty rates, Grant’s men were extremely loyal to him. Grant did not enjoy the death toll, but, according to Bunting, Grant was certain that he was in the right. And Grant believed in “the certainty of victory.” Grant would push forward all the time. He would make the South pay for their actions.

When Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomatox Court House, Grant no longer wished for unconditional surrender. Grant asked that Lee’s men simply surrender their arms and agree not to fight again. Lee’s men could then go home and try to rebuild their lives. Grant became General of the Army of the United States.

Lincoln had asked Grant and his wife to go with him to Ford’s Theater on that fateful April 14 of 1865. Grant declined, mostly because  Julia did not wish to spend a night with Mary Todd Lincoln. After Lincoln’s death, Vice President Andrew Johnson took over the role of bringing the country back together.

The next four years would nearly ruin the nation again. Johnson wished to immediately bring the Southern States back into the Union with full voting rights in Congress. Johnson, although a firmly believer in abolition, had no desire to see the freed slaves attain any other basic civil rights. Republicans in Congress resisted Johnson at every turn. The Reconstruction of the United States would not be accomplished only by the powers of persuasion. It would take the United States Army.

Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment, which granted full citizenship to anyone born on United States soil. Grant supported it. Johnson wished to speak out against it, along with many other Radical Republican measures in Congress on a speaking tour through the Midwest by train. Grant came along for moral support, but quickly tried to distance himself from Johnson, who was often heckled by crowds, and Johnson would respond in kind.

In 1868, matters between Congress and President Johnson came to a head with the Tenure of Office Act. This act made it illegal for the President to remove from office without Congressional approval. Johnson wished to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (who was leaking information to the Radicals) and replace him with Grant. At first, Grant accepted the job, but, realizing that he had a chance to become President later in the year, declined. Eventually, Stanton was replaced. The House impeached Johnson and he escaped conviction by one vote.

The Presidential Election of 1868 was perfectly set up for Ulysses Grant. No one else in the country had the stature to take over.  Grant won the nomination without any opposition. Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax was named as Grant’s running mate.

The Democrats nominated former New York Governor Horatio Seymour. Seymour was no match for the hugely popular Grant. With much of the white Democratic vote in the South suppressed by the Army, Grant won by a 214-80 margin in the Electoral Vote and had 52.7% of the popular vote.

While everyone knew of Grant’s military heroics, very little was known about how he would govern. Not many people seemed to care too much about that at the time.

Grant would not reveal the names of his choices for Cabinet posts until he forwarded them on to the Senate. Some of his choices were curious. For example, he chose an Ohio friend, Elihu Washburne for Secretary of State. But, Washburne resigned the post after 12 days to become Minister to France. Grant felt that Washburne would be considered a more prestigious emissary with “former Secretary of State” on his resumé. Hamilton Fish would replace Washburne for the next eight years.

Grant’s military chief of staff, John Rawlins, was supposed to head up the Army in the Southwest, but Rawlins told Grant that he would rather be Secretary of War. And Rawlins got the job. But, he died in September of 1869 of tuberculosis.

A quiet, but wealthy campaign contributor from Philadelphia, Adolph Borie, became Secretary of the Navy. However, Borie did not know anything about naval affairs. Grant just thought he would like the job. Borie resigned the position in June of 1869.

Grant also wanted to pick financier Alexander Stewart to be Secretary of the Treasury. However, Stewart’s vast wealth and many entanglements with Federal funds, made the Senate balk at his nomination. Grant withdrew Stewart and nominated George Boutwell, one of the House managers for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Soon after taking office, Grant decided to tackle the issue of the national debt, which had ballooned to nearly $3 billion (about $46 trillion in today’s money, almost four times today’s national debt.) Grant had Congress pass a law requiring that the debt be repaid with gold and not paper money. Grant wished to avoid inflation at all costs.

The increased demand for gold led two New York speculators, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, to try to corner the gold market. With inside knowledge from one of Grant’s brothers-in-law, the two men persuaded the Treasury to delay public sales of gold. Gould would buy large sums of gold, which served to drive up the price. The idea would be that when people tried to redeem their greenbacks for gold, they would reap even more money. The whole plan fell apart though when the Treasury sold a large amount of gold earlier than expected, which sent prices plummeting. Many people were ruined, although Gould and Fisk were not, and neither faced any criminal prosecution.

Grant’s response to this crisis gave people the impression that he was in the pocket of Wall Street, and likely in over his head in the job of President. Scandals would be a constant presence during Grant’s Administration.

Besides the national debt, one of the major crises for Grant was dealing with the problem of how to bring back the Southern states into the Union. Although the slaves were free, Southerners showed no inclination of allowing the freed slaves to vote.  Methods ranging from legal chicanery (such as literacy tests) to blatant violence (from groups like the Ku Klux Klan) were employed to keep African-Americans from voting.

Grant was not afraid to use Federal force to maintain order and uphold civil rights. Under Grant’s watch, the Fifteenth Amendment, which explicitly granted the franchise to all adult male citizens regardless of race, was adopted. Grant also created the Justice Department, headed by the Attorney General, to enforce civil rights laws. Prior to 1871, the Attorney General was mostly a glorified White House counsel. Grant made the position into one of the most powerful jobs in the country. Nevertheless, Grant’s desire to use Federal force to enforce black voting rights in the South was often more of a political calculation than a moral one.  Bunting admits that Grant would time Federal activities in the South to help with elections in various parts of the country.

Toward the end of Grant’s first term, a major scandal shook up his Administration. It would be known as the Credit Mobilier Scandal. Credit Mobilier was a construction company set up by the Union Pacific railway. Several members of Congress had taken bribes, usually in the form of stock, to give the Union Pacific favorable votes in Congress. Vice President Colfax was caught up in the scandal and dropped from the ticket in 1872.

The Democrats did not run an opponent against Grant in 1872. Instead, an odd coalition of government reformers who were opposed to the rampant use of political patronage jobs, as well as Northerners who objected to the continuation of military Reconstruction in the South, formed a group called the Liberal Republicans. They nominated newspaper publisher Horace Greeley.

Greeley had never held elective office before. His campaign never got very far as he proved to be a rather unusual character. He always wore a long coat and carried an umbrella regardless of the weather.

Grant had little trouble winning another term. He won with 286 electoral votes and 55.6% of the popular vote. Soon after the election, Greeley’s wife died. Bereft after her passing, Greeley soon died as well, leaving his 66 pledged electors to vote for whomever they wanted. (For those not scoring at home, here is how the voting went.)

The next four years for Grant would bring about even more scandal. His new Vice President, Henry Wilson, turned out to also be involved in the Credit Mobilier scandal. However, he passed away in 1874, before any final determination of his complicity.

In 1873, Congress passed a law doubling the President’s salary to $50,000. That did not bother people. What bothered people was that Congress voted itself a raise and made it retroactive for two years. And members of Congress would get a $5,000 bonus on top of that. Public opposition forced the repeal of this pay raise (but not Grant’s) in 1874.

Grant’s personal secretary had to resign in connection in a tax evasion scheme involving distillers. The Secretary of War extorted money to allow a trading post to stay open. The Attorney General took a bribe to stop the prosecution of a case against a customs house.

Adding to all this was a major financial crisis: the Panic of 1873. This crisis came about because of speculation in the railroad industry. Those stocks became over-valued and then collapsed in price. Banks began to fail. Unemployment shot up. Wages declined. Congress wanted to relieve the credit crisis by allowing more greenbacks into circulation. But, Grant vetoed the measure, keeping in line with his strong belief in the gold standard, as well as a fear of inflation. Although it did take time (until 1879 when Grant was out of office), the economy did right itself.

It might seem that Grant did little right. Bunting does not believe that to be the case. He believes that the domestic ills were the result of Grant’s military background and his belief that he could delegate authority correctly.

Bunting also gives Grant credit for foreign policy successes. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish negotiated a major treaty with Great Britain over a dispute that originally centered on a claim that the United States had against the British for helping the Confederate Navy build a steamer called the Alabama. Fish initially received monetary remuneration from Britain, but Senate Foreign Relations Chair Charles Sumner declared that to be inadequate. Sumner believed the Alabama extended the Civil War for two years. Sumner wanted Canada as payback.

Fish ultimately got the British (and Sumner) to come to an agreement to have the matter sent to binding arbitration. Fish would also negotiate a sticky border dispute between the U.S. and Canada in the newly acquired Alaska Territory.

Bunting makes a case that Grant had the most humane policy toward Native Americans of any President. Grant wanted to smooth relations between the various Native American nations and the United States. He wanted to establish schools. He appointed Native Americans to administer the programs. Grant wanted to complete Jefferson’s dream of making the original inhabitants of the United States Americans on equal standing with those who came later.

Sadly, this was not to be. Toward the end of Grant’s administration in 1876, when an Army Cavalry regiment under the command of Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was wiped out by a Lakota-Cheyenne force at the Little Bighorn River. Public opinion no longer favored giving the Native Americans any more aid.

After leaving the White House, Ulysses and Julia Grant took a tour of Europe that lasted over two years. They were celebrities wherever they went, but, to Grant’s disappointment, he was mostly honored as a general, not a President. He came back to the United States hoping to reenter the political fray in 1880 as a candidate for President.

The Republican Convention could not decide between Grant and James Blaine of Maine. James Garfield was nominated as a compromise choice. Grant had to leave the arena.

Unfortunately, a bad investment left Grant nearly penniless. Wealthy benefactors helped out as much as they could. Around this time, Grant developed a sharp pain in his throat. It turned out to be throat cancer.

With little time to live, Grant opted to sign with a publisher to write his memoirs. Despite being in tremendous pain, Grant produced a two-volume work. He finished writing the manuscript on July 18, 1885. He died on July 23, 1885 in Mount McGregor, New York. (Grant is the only President known to have died from cancer.) The memoirs earned his estate over $450,000 in royalties.

Bunting’s book does not make the most persuasive case that Grant was anything but a mediocre to terrible President. Grant should be credited for his strong stance on civil rights and his relatively enlightened attitude toward Native Americans. Ulysses S. Grant as President probably seemed like a good idea at the time for the United States. But, the United States did not have the brilliant military strategist as President. Instead, the country got the ne’er-do-well who could not hold a job before the Civil War. We all have some job that we are best suited for. For Ulysses S. Grant, that job was in the military, not in civilian life.

Other stuff: Grant was 46 years old at the time of his inauguration, making him the youngest man to hold the office at the time. Vice President Schuyler Colfax was just 45.

Grant’s birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio is open to visitors. It is operated by the Ohio Historical Society. Grant and his wife Julia are entombed at the General Grant National Memorial in New York City at 122nd and Riverside. It is familiarly called Grant’s Tomb. It is operated by the National Park Service.

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The Presidency of Franklin Pierce by Larry Gara

President #14, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #40

At least Nathaniel Hawthorne liked him

DSCF0884Franklin Pierce is a very difficult president to read about. There weren’t many biographies written about him. A man named Peter Wallner wrote a two volume biography of Pierce that was published between 2004 and 2007. However, that was two too many volumes I wanted to read about Franklin Pierce.

Why? Because Franklin Pierce was simply an awful President. He had dubious qualifications for the office. He showed no ability to be able to perform the job. He had a governing style that either had him hiding his head in the sand and hoping that a problem would go away, or, confronting the problem by taking his right arm, extending it in front of him, and then further extending his middle finger. And, he was an alcoholic. After one term in office, his own party refused him renomination, the only incumbent President (elected version) to be saddled with that ignominy.

But, other than those flaws, Franklin Pierce did an admirable job. He had good penmanship I’ve heard (or I could be fabricating that.). He gave good speeches. People thought he was good looking. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a glowing campaign biography of him. (You don’t even have to buy Cliff’s Notes to read it.)

I opted to read a 1991 book by Larry Gara, a history professor at Wilmington College (it’s in Ohio) who specializes in the antebellum era. Gara took on the thankless task of trying to make sense of the four years America had to suffer with Franklin Pierce at the helm. The resulting work was enlightening and entertaining. When you finish it, you think, “Wow, it couldn’t have gotten worse.” But, America certainly did get much worse under James Buchanan, leading up to the Civil War.

Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804 in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. His father served two terms as governor of New Hampshire.  Pierce stumbled his way through his education and ended up at Bowdoin College, where he became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne. By 1827, he had graduated from Bowdoin and had set up a law practice in Concord, New Hampshire.

Pierce quickly got into politics, winning a seat in the New Hampshire General Court at the age of 24. He became Speaker of the House of Representatives in New Hampshire after two terms. He then parlayed that into a House seat in Washington in 1833, and then into the Senate in 1837. It’s not that Pierce was a shrewd legislator. But, he was a nice guy. And his father was famous.

In 1834, Pierce married Jane Appleton, the daughter of the president of Bowdoin College (not the woman depicted in the linked video). Jane was never well. They had three children. The first son died in infancy. The second died at the age of four of typhus, and the third died in a train accident at the age of 11 a few months before Pierce was inaugurated.

Because of his delicate family situation, Pierce resigned from the Senate in 1842. Pierce practiced law and gave speeches endorsing candidates, but little else. Gara also asserts that Pierce’s alcoholism had begun to develop, in part to cope with his difficult home life and also to ward off the boredom of living in Washington at the time. (Washington Nationals baseball was still years away.) Congress was rife with alcoholics at the time, Daniel Webster being the most famous one.

When the Mexican War started, Pierce enlisted as a private, but was quickly made a general. This wasn’t because he was a military genius, but rather because he was somewhat famous. He suffered a severe hip injury during a battle. He twice tried to ride into battle without sufficient treatment and passed out from the pain. Pierce was sent back home to New Hampshire, but he was now an officially certified war hero. Even though nobody really knew what he did. And he drank more to ease the pain.

By the time of the 1852 elections, American politics was a mess. Although there were nominally two parties: the Democrats and Whigs, there were almost a dozen different factions from each party that coalesced around various themes: slavery, expansion, nationalism, internal improvements, and the always popular organized beatings of immigrant Catholics.

Slavery was the most divisive issue obviously. The acquisition of territory from Mexico made Northerners afraid that the South would use that area to increase the spread of slavery. More slavery meant more political and economic power for the South. As Gara pointed out, very few of the opponents of slavery actually wanted free blacks living among them. They just didn’t want the South to increase its power.

However, both the Democrats and Whigs were national parties. So, neither could take a stand for or against slavery without losing significant amounts of support. The result was that slavery was pushed far into the background by the two parties.

Incumbent Whig President Millard Fillmore had no shot at the nomination. The Whigs wanted to nominate someone with flash and pizzazz. They turned to another hero of the Mexican War, Winfield Scott. While Scott did perform well in Mexico, he was a horrible candidate for President. He didn’t earn the nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers” for having a dynamic personality.

The Democrats had numerous candidates for the nomination, but none of them were particularly attractive. Illinois Senator Steven Douglas, former Secretary of State James Buchanan, and Michigan senator Lewis Cass (who had lost in 1848) were some of the candidates you may have heard of. And then there were a bunch that you hadn’t heard of.

At the Democratic Convention in Baltimore, there was a deadlock. The supporters of Cass and Buchanan wouldn’t budge and the voting continued ballot after ballot. On the 35th ballot, a faction of the party known as Young America (because they were young, not because they would have descendants who were David Bowie fans) decided to put Pierce’s name into nomination.

The Young Americans were a nationalist and expansionist wing of the Democratic Party. Douglas had been their standard bearer, but Douglas had ticked off too many people. So, they decided to make Pierce their candidate. It took until the 49th ballot before the supporters of Cass and Buchanan gave up and gave Pierce the nomination.

Why Pierce? Why him? It seems that New Hampshire Democrats felt that they were owed consideration for the Presidency since the state had been such a reliable Democratic vote in the last few elections. Pierce happened to be the most notable politician from the state. Also, Pierce was quite fond of the South and Southerners and would not fall in league with abolitionist forces.

You may wonder if Pierce was actively seeking the nomination. As far as I can tell, he was not NOT seeking the nomination. When Pierce found out the news, he convinced his wife to go along with the plan (which was hard to do) and he accepted the nomination. William King of Alabama was nominated as Vice President. King was an odd choice as he was suffering from tuberculosis. And he was very ill. But, he was needed to balance the ticket.

Pierce won the election rather easily over Scott with over 50% of the vote to 43% for Scott. Free Soil party candidate John Hale, a rival of Pierce in New Hampshire, took the rest. In the electoral vote, Pierce won 254 votes to 42 for Scott. Pierce won New Hampshire, but Scott won Vermont. This showed, even in 1852, that New Hampshire and Vermont are two states that only look like they should be similar. In reality, they are both populated by kooks. Before the election (as mentioned above) Pierce’s last surviving son was killed in a train accident. He and his wife were hurt, but not too badly. However, this death cast a pall on his administration. His wife rarely ventured out in public. Pierce tried to find solace in alcohol more and more often.

Vice President-elect King was so ill that he visited Cuba in an attempt to regain his health. Congress passed a law allowing him to be sworn in there. But, it was to no avail. King died 45 days after taking office.

Pierce did assemble a Cabinet that was better than what you would expect. His Secretary of State William Marcy, who knew next to nothing about foreign affairs, actually did a decent job. However, his Secretary of War was Jefferson Davis (a personal friend), ended up acting much like the vainglorious racist he would later become as President of the Confederacy. The rest of the Cabinet was loyal. Pierce is the only President to serve a full term in office and have no changes in his Cabinet.

After his inauguration, Pierce faced numerous crises, but the most pressing one was solving the problem of the expansion of slavery in the territories. The Compromise of 1850 was supposed to have delayed that problem for a while, but Congress couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Douglas proposed what would become known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Nebraska Territory (which was very large) would be split up and each section would have its inhabitants vote on whether or not slavery should be allowed in the territory.

Essentially, Douglas proposed (and Pierce agreed) to have Congress (which was presumably made up of fairly smart elected leaders) to cede its ability to legislate on the most pressing political and social issue of the day to a group of people who would most likely just be rounded up from some other part of the country, dropped into Kansas, and told how to vote. Douglas called it “popular sovereignty.” It turned out to be “Dress rehearsal for the Civil War.” [In present day California, the people rule in the same way, but we add the step of making them sign a petition shoved in front of them by a guy in front of the local Target. If someone spent enough money to round up the signatures, I’m sure Californians would vote on whether or not to reinstitute slavery. Those guys in front of Target can be quite persistent. Californians have also shown a propensity for voting in favor of measures that are contrary to the United States Constitution or rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. My God, do I live in one stupidly run state. Sorry for the digression.]

Douglas proposed the bill because he thought it would ease the way for building a transcontinental railroad. Douglas was beholden politically and financially to speculators who wanted to build such a railroad. Davis wanted to build a similar railroad, but he wanted it through the South.

Southerners descended upon Kansas and set up makeshift towns. Enough them got together that they claimed to have formed a government. A proposed state constitution was sent to Washington. It required anyone holding office in Kansas to own slaves. It also made speaking out against slavery illegal in the state. Pierce thought all of this was OK by him. Congress refused to accept the proposed constitution.

Eventually, pro and anti-slavery settlers poured into the state. Nobody knew who was in charge. But, they did like shooting at each other. The territory became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Pierce was flummoxed that instead of easing tensions in the slavery debate, all the Kansas-Nebraska did was to escalate tensions. Pierce was flummoxed on most days, however.

Debates in Congress in the bill became so heated that a South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, in response to a verbal attack on a South Carolina senator by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, walked into the Senate chamber on May 22, 1856 and beat Sumner over the head with a cane. The beating was so severe that Sumner could not resume his activities in the Senate for three years. Brooks was hailed as a hero in South Carolina and received numerous canes as a gifts, some engraved “Hit him again!” (Brooks passed away in 1857. Few people missed him.)

Pierce was also presented a bill that would have established a Federally funded system of hospitals to care for indigents who suffered from severe mental illness. This was the pet project of Dorothea Dix, one of the most respected women of the day. Pierce vetoed the bill stating that the Federal government couldn’t help everyone in need and it was a state responsibility. However, months later Pierce would sign into law bills granting Mexican War veterans favorable pensions and land deals.  Pierce was in favor of the Federal government helping out poor people who could still vote. And looked nice.

Another issue that came up was enforcement of the new Fugitive Slave Law. This law, part of the Compromise of 1850, required anyone anywhere in the United States to return a slave to its owner with barely any involvement in the legal process.

One case in Boston in 1854 saw a mob try to prevent a Fugitive Slave “commissioner” from returning a slave to the South. Pierce ordered in Federal troops to send the man back to the South and slavery. Pierce believed that preserving the “property” rights of the South were superior to the human rights of any one person. But, Pierce didn’t believe the man in custody was a person.

About the only area where Pierce wasn’t a total disaster was in foreign affairs. Fortunately, Secretary of State William Marcy was competent to run his office, even though his diplomatic corps consisted of people such as a failed Presidential candidate in Buchanan; a French national who somehow still managed to qualify to serve in the Senate, Pierre Soule; and a man who spent his time writing novels, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Marcy, through Minister to Mexico James Gadsden, expanded U.S. territory by purchase a strip of land (the Gila River Valley) in southern Arizona and New Mexico. This territory was not part of the land ceded from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. However, it was needed because surveyors determined that any Southern route for a transcontinental railroad would have to pass through it. Gadsden almost pulled off a deal that would have added Baja California and Sonora to the U.S. as well, but the Mexican government balked on dealing that area after American filibuster William Walker tried to claim the area as an independent republic.

Also, under Pierce’s watch, an American naval expedition under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry steamed to Japan (sent under orders from President Fillmore, but it took a while to get there) to open relations with what had been a hermit kingdom. The United States was able to establish trade, although not at the most favorable ports, and helped to bring Japan into the international community.

Pierce and Marcy had to deal with filibusters (using the original meaning of the word, not the delaying tactic in the Senate) in Nicaragua and Cuba. In Nicaragua, Walker tried to set up another republic for him to be in charge of, but he was eventually forced out when he lost the support of Cornelius Vanderbilt (who owned extensive shipping interests in the area), and that in turn caused Pierce to withdraw American support.

No filibuster expedition took over Cuba, but it seemed that Pierce wanted one. Marcy, along with Buchanan, Soule, and Minister to France John Mason, met in Ostend, Belgium to discuss acquiring Cuba. The men agreed that the U.S. should offer to buy the island or, if Spain refused, take it by force, either overtly or through a filibuster. This supposedly secret talk was quickly leaked to the press and became known as the Ostend Manifesto. Once Northerners heard of it, anti-slavery politicians saw it as another land grab for slaveholders. The plan was quickly dropped as other European powers expressed opposition.

If it seemed that Franklin Pierce could do nothing well, why did he become President? Gara looks to the political climate of 1852. The nation was undergoing rapid changes in its economy. Railroads were changing transportation. The telegraph was changing communications. Immigrants were changing the demographics. But, the government hadn’t adapted to these changes. Keeping matters calm was paramount.

However, more was needed. Leaders with a vision for the future were needed. But, the political system wasn’t set up to create one. Politicians of the time didn’t want to confront problems. They just wanted to keep people happy. But, they weren’t happy. They hated each other. There was a battle for economic control of the country with black slaves as the weight that tipped everything in the South’s favor.

Political leaders of the 1850s weren’t picked because they were smart or good leaders. They were picked almost solely because they were popular. And Franklin Pierce was popular. Or at least he was after some marketing.

However, once Pierce was forced to take office and actually try to deal with issues, it was apparent that he was hopelessly in over his head. He had no political base of support. There was no “Pierce Machine.” There was just one guy, Franklin Pierce, who drank a lot. Pierce had few friends in Congress. His wife was bereft with the loss of her children. Pierce was out on his own. And he was not up to the task.

Pierce was barely considered for renomination in 1856. James Buchanan, who was actually a worse President than Pierce, came back from England to become the 15th President. Buchanan mixed Pierce’s incompetence with a dash of graft and a heaping teaspoon of arrogance to break the country in half.

Pierce spent the rest of his life in New Hampshire where he was mostly ignored. He was accused of being a Southern sympathizer and an angry mob surrounded his house after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination when Pierce refused to hang a flag surrounded in black trim in memory of the slain Executive. Pierce claimed that he didn’t have to fly a flag to prove his loyalty. The mob dispersed. They likely knew that Franklin Pierce’s bigger problem was that he had to live with his own conscience. Pierce died on October 8, 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver.

I found Gara’s book to be fascinating and one of the best I’ve read about a President. Gara doesn’t try to defend Pierce or rationalize his actions in any way. Gara knows that Pierce was a poor President. In a less contentious time, Pierce may have just been mediocre. But, the slavery question turned Pierce from mediocre to horrible.

Franklin Pierce may be one of the least-known Presidents. But, maybe it’s all for the best. However, part of me thinks that Americans should know what kind of leaders we are capable of choosing if we don’t pay attention to what is truly important. America got Franklin Pierce as President, and the country deserved him for failing to realize that half of the country was living a life based on the idea that real live human beings were just “property.” Slavery had long been a slowly festering illness that was destroying the United States. By the time Pierce took office, the illness had become acute. It would get worse before it got better.

Other stuff: The childhood home of Pierce is part of a park run by the state of New Hampshire called The Pierce Homestead. The home Pierce owned in Concord is called the Pierce Manse and it houses the New Hampshire Political Library. Pierce is buried in the Old North Cemetery in Concord.

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Polk: the Man who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

President #11, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #12

Looks Like My Work Here is Done

polkBetween the time of Andrew Jackson and before the time of Abraham Lincoln, American Presidents were an undistinguished lot, to put it kindly. No one served more than one term. Most are forgotten.

However, one man in the job managed to stand out. That was James Knox Polk. Polk was the lone President of his era who used the office to actually get things done. He came, seemingly from nowhere; and then, after one term, died soon after leaving office.

Polk’s mostly glowing reputation stems from the fact that he promised to accomplish four major goals while in office. And he did that. Whether or not Polk used methods to accomplish these goals (such as fighting a war of conquest against Mexico that was of questionable legitimacy) is what needs to be evaluated. However, it seems clear from reading this book that James Polk was a man who was very intent on getting things done.

James Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina on November 2, 1795, but his family moved to Tennessee when he was 11. At age 17, young James Polk suffered from a severe pain in his urinary tract. He had a stone lodged in a delicate part of his anatomy. A doctor removed the stone in a way that you don’t want the details of. One of the side effects was that James Polk never had any children.

At the age of 20, James Polk enrolled in the University of North Carolina. UNC was a small institution at the time and had just one professor. (But, preparing for the future, there were seven basketball coaches even though the game hadn’t been invented yet.)

When Polk returned to Tennessee, he got a job as the clerk of the State Senate in 1819. He began to build relationships with prominent Tennessee politicians such as Davey Crockett, Sam Houston (both of whom would move on to Texas), and, most importantly, Andrew Jackson. By 1823, Polk was elected to the Senate. The next year, he married his wife Sarah.

Polk supported Jackson in his quest for the Presidency in 1824, and, like many (since Jackson got the most popular AND electoral votes), was bitterly disappointed when John Quincy Adams was chosen President by the House of Representatives. Polk fingered Henry Clay as the chief villain.

In 1825, Polk was elected to the House of Representatives. By 1833, he was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, thanks to Jackson’s support. In 1834, Polk ran for Speaker of the House, but lost out to another Tennessean, John Bell. However, in 1835, Polk finally ascended to the Speakership.

However, Polk had to give up the Speakership in 1839. He was needed back in Tennessee as the Democrats needed a strong candidate for governor. He won that race, but was defeated for reelection in 1841. When he challenged the incumbent governor (James Jones, portrayed as a hayseed by Borneman) in 1843, Polk lost again. He seemingly was a man going nowhere politically.

Polk still had hopes that he could get back to higher office. His goal for 1844 was to be the Democratic nominee for Vice-President. As he was just 49, Polk figured he could wait until 1852 or 1856 to get a shot at the Presidency.

But, events took a strange turn. In 1844, the hottest political issue in the country was Texas. The then independent country was practically begging to become part of the United States, as it was heavily in debt, and threatened by Mexico and Great Britain.

President John Tyler submitted a treaty annexing Texas that the Senate rejected. Northerners were hesitant to admit such a large slave-owning state into the Union. Tyler’s third Secretary of State (the first one, Daniel Webster, resigned. The second one, Abel Upshur, died in a steamship explosion), John Calhoun, was a proponent of annexation. However, he hurt his plan when he wrote a lengthy diplomatic memorandum to the British minister to the U.S. detailing why slavery was good for Texas and good for America. Texas was now inextricably linked in the minds of many with slavery.

The two presumptive nominees for President in 1844 were Whig candidate Clay and Democratic ex-President Martin Van Buren. Clay was opposed to the annexation of Texas because it would create divisions over slavery and possibly provoke a war with Mexico. Van Buren turned out to be opposed to annexation as well, also because of fears of adding any more slave-owning states to the Union.

Clay and Van Buren announced these positions coincidentally on the same day. When news of Clay and Van Buren’s opposition to Texas reached Andrew Jackson, in retirement in Tennessee, Old Hickory summoned his protege, Polk, to visit him.

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James Polk at the National Portrait Gallery

Polk was a proponent of the annexation of Texas. Polk was pretty much in favor of adding just about any territory the United States could get its hands on. Jackson told Polk that he should aim for the Presidency in 1844. Jackson could make it work.

Both parties held their conventions in Baltimore in 1844. The Whigs nominated Clay by acclamation. They assumed that the Great Compromiser would have his best chance to win the Presidency in his third try.

The Democrats were facing a much more difficult situation. For starters, Democratic party rules required any nominee to gain 2/3 the votes of the delegates. Van Buren led in delegates, but was well short of 2/3. And there was significant opposition to Van Buren. But, there was no one candidate for the anti-Van Buren forces to rally around.

During the eighth ballot, Polk received 44 votes. Then on the ninth, there was a stampede for Polk, bringing him up to 231 votes and making him the nominee.

The convention then nominated Silas Wright of New York for Vice President, but he declined as he chose to run for governor of New York. The convention then chose George Dallas of Philadelphia.

The Whigs derisively asked “Who is James K. Polk?” Polk was considered to be untested and inexperienced, despite his tenure as Speaker of the House. Henry Clay had the resume to be president.

But, when the votes were counted, Polk prevailed by 39,000 votes and by 65 in the electoral vote. The difference was New York, which had 36 electoral votes. Polk carried it by only 5,000 votes. Some credit third party candidate, James Birney (of the antislavery Liberty Party) of siphoning just enough votes to make the difference. (You can’t blame Florida, it wouldn’t become a state until 1845.) Polk failed to carry his home state of Tennessee

Clay ended up hurting himself by waffling on the Texas issue, making it sound as if he could back annexation. Polk resolutely maintained his position on Texas. He also proposed that he would  accomplish four things in office:

  1. Settle the Oregon border dispute
  2. Add California to the United States
  3. Adjust the tariff so it would be on a revenue basis, and not protectionist
  4. Establish an independent Treasury to maintain the assets of the United States, ending the practice of the Federal Government depositing its funds in a host of state banks

Also, Polk pledged to serve just one term, which neutralized a similar pledge that Clay had made. The Whig party did not believe that the President should have much power, but did believe in an activist government that spent money on internal improvements. The Democrats believed in a powerful executive, but also in limited government. It made a lot more sense back in 1844 than it does now.

The Texas issue was solved (to a certain extent) before Polk was inaugurated. On March 3, 1845, Tyler signed a Congressional joint resolution annexing Texas as part of the United States. Once the details were sorted out, Texas would become a state.

As Clay sulked over being denied the Presidency a third time, Polk got to work almost immediately. He intended to be an active hands on manager. He insisted that his Cabinet members stay in Washington and be available to him at all times. He tried to schedule Cabinet meetings twice a week.

Polk’s first big issue he faced was the Oregon situation. The Oregon Territory had been jointly occupied by the Americans and British since a treaty in 1818 (the Spanish and Russians also had claims to the area, but they abandoned them.) The area was sparsely populated, with cafe lattes being much harder to find than they are now. The 1818 Treaty had a provision where either signatory could ask out with one year’s notice. Presumably, the issue would then be resolved by negotiation, arbitration, or going to war. Polk wanted negotiation or war, with little use for arbitration.

The British were willing to negotiate the situation, but it was hard getting an agreement on where to draw the border. The 49th Parallel represented the border between the U.S.  and Canada from Minnesota until you hit the Oregon Territory. One plan had the U.S. getting most of the Oregon Territory except for the area around Puget Sound stretching out east to the Columbia River.

Polk, and his Secretary of State James Buchanan, didn’t particularly like this idea as Puget Sound was necessary from both an economic and strategic standpoint. (Polk also owned stock in Boeing and Microsoft. He was always looking ahead.)

Another problem was a growing nationalist movement in America that demanded that the United States take control of the ENTIRE Oregon Territory, all the way up to the 54’40° mark at the border with the Russian territory of Alaska. The phrase “54’40° or Fight!” entered the American political dialog. One Philadelphia paper used the phrase “Phifty Phour Phorty or Phight” and then changed that to an abbreviation of “PPPP.” (The repeated use of PHs for Fs was about as funny in 1845 as it is today.)

Polk and Buchanan finally agreed to compromise on a border at the 49th Parallel. The British asked for unrestricted navigation for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Polk agreed to this after the State Department found out that the Hudson’s Bay Company was going to lose its charter in the 1850s anyway. The treaty was ratified on June 18, 1846. Polk bought everyone espressos to celebrate.

One quirk of this decision was that there ended up being part of the United States that would only be accessible through Canada. That area is now called Point Roberts, Washington. I visited it once. It’s really not worth the trip.

What Polk is known best for is the Mexican War. This conflict would end up adding three whole states and parts of four others to the United States. It would also prove to be a prelude to the Civil War. And, even today, the peace treaty concluding the war is still in dispute.

After Polk indicated he would make Texas a state (making it much easier for fans to travel to the Cotton Bowl), Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the U.S. Polk didn’t see this as a crisis, but rather an opportunity.

Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to take up a position in Texas south of the Nueces River near Corpus Christi (which Mexico believed to be the border) and north of the Rio Grande (which the United States thought was the border). Polk had a representative, John Slidell, travel to Mexico City to offer the Mexican government $25 million plus some debt relief in exchange for the territories of New Mexico and Alta California. The Mexican government (which changed frequently at this time) declined the offer.

On April 25, 1846, Taylor’s troops were engaged by Mexican forces and eleven soldiers were killed. When news of the battle got back to Washington, Polk claimed that “American blood had been spilled on American soil.” He asked Congress to declare war, which was done with only a handful of dissenting votes.

Borneman believes that Polk demanding a declaration of war was a turning point in American history. The only other time Congress had declared war (back in 1812), it was Congress, specifically Henry Clay, leading the cause. President James Madison supported the declaration, but deferred to Congress. Polk was not going to let Congress take its time. He wanted action. In the three subsequent declarations of war, the President would be the person telling Congress to declare war. (Since World War II, much of the world has gotten out of the declaring war business. It’s easier to fight without one.)

Polk hoped that a $2 million inducement would bring former Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna return from exile. Polk figured that Santa Anna would retake control in Mexico, followed by a surrender. However, Santa Anna just took the money, and kept fighting. Santa Anna would eventually serve as Mexican President four separate times.

General Stephen Kearney led a small force from Kansas and occupied Santa Fe without a fight. Kearney kept on moving to California in an attempt to claim that territory. When Kearney got to California, he found out that explorer John C. Fremont had already led a rebellion that established an independent republic in California, known as the Bear Flag Republic. (Hence the flag!)

Fremont’s adventuring ended up complicating matters greatly. However, Kearney was eventually able to gain control of the area after a series of small battles in Southern California. The Treaty of Cahuenga finished off this part of the war.

The portion of the war in Mexico proved to be a bit more difficult. For starters, both of the principal American generals, Taylor and Winfield Scott, were Whig politicians who were reportedly angling for the Presidency. Scott had already made attempts to gain the nomination in 1836 and 1840.

Taylor also did not want to help out Scott, who was given the order to make an amphibious landing at Veracruz to take that port, and then proceed on to Mexico City. Taylor won a major battle against Mexican forces in the Battle of Buena Vista (although Borneman doesn’t give Taylor much credit) on February 22, 1847. The Whig press seized upon this victory as one of America’s greatest military triumphs, although mass desertions in the Mexican ranks probably helped out more.

Meanwhile, Polk sent another minister to Mexico, Nicholas Trist, to join Scott. Once Scott captured Mexico City, Trist was to present his credentials as an ambassador and negotiate a treaty. Scott managed to successfully land at Veracruz in March of 1847. Some of the officers under Scott’s command were Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and George Meade. It was like spring training for the Civil War.

Scott pushed on to take over Mexico City and on to Puebla, before stopping his advance in May of 1847. Now, it was time to negotiate.

Polk wanted Trist to get the Mexican government to cede to the U.S. all of Alta California and New Mexico as “payment” for the war costs. Trist turned out to be of an independent mind. He first offered to settle the Texas-Mexico border NORTH of the Rio Grande, which would have made the whole cause of the war bogus. When Polk got wind of this, he wanted Trist to come home.

Fortunately for Trist, communications were slow enough that he had enough time to convince the Mexican government to give Polk almost all of what he wanted. Mexico agreed to give up the land shaded in red in the linked map in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The treaty was signed on February 2, 1848. Trist sent it back to Washington quickly, forcing Polk to have to send it on to the Senate.

With the exception of a section that would have guaranteed Spanish and Mexican land claims, the Senate accepted the treaty on March 10, 1848.

Polk’s conduct of the war was not popular with everyone. An Illinois Representative named Abraham Lincoln tried to get Congress to pass what he called “The Spot Resolution” that would force Polk to identify the actual spot where the initial hostilities happened. It did not pass. In Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay a tax in support of the war and went to jail for a night because of it. Thoreau penned his famous essay “On Civil Disobedience” based on this experience.

Another problem for Polk came from another member of his party, Representative David Wilmot of Pennsyvlania. Wilmot tried to attach a rider (more frequently called the Wilmot Proviso) to an appropriations bill for the war that would have abolished slavery in any territory taken from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso never passed, but it served as a model for antislavery forces leading up to the Civil War.

One of the questions about Polk’s Administration is: Did he start the war with Mexico in order to provide the South with more territory that would be available for slavery? Borneman doesn’t think that was the case. He portrays Polk as an ardent nationalist in the tradition of Andrew Jackson. Polk wanted California as much for strategic purposes as anything else. However, Polk’s reputation for most of the post Civil War period portrayed him as a greedy slaveowner.

Lately, Polk has been regarded much better by historians. He receives high marks for accomplishing all four of his campaign promises. (The tariff reform and Independent Treasury measures passed with surprisingly little opposition from Congress.)

However, Polk did not leave much of a legacy. Zachary Taylor, whom Polk thought would be a terrible President, succeeded him. Polk and his wife Sarah hoped to spend a quiet retirement in Nashville. But Polk was not a healthy man. The linked photo shows Polk in February of 1849. He is just 53 years old in the photo.

The Polks went by boat from Washington and headed south. They planned to go up the Mississippi back to Tennessee. One of the ships the Polks were on was riddled with cholera sufferers. Polk fell victim to it. On June 15, 1849, just 103 days after leaving office, James Knox Polk died in Nashville. He had the shortest retirement of any President. He also was the youngest President to die of natural causes. His widow, Sarah, lived until August 14, 1891, the longest widowhood of any First Lady.

Borneman’s book, at least the title, claims that Polk changed America. However, it seems to me that Polk was more of a phenomenon than a trendsetter. There would not be another President who would use the office of the Presidency in a similar way until Abraham Lincoln. And Lincoln was opposed to almost all of Polk’s policies.

Polk is unique in American history in that he seemingly came from nowhere, made an enormous impact on the country. Then he died, leaving no political legacy whatsoever. The two Democrats who followed Polk in office, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, were two of the worst Presidents ever. By the times the Democrats got back to the White House in 1885, James Polk’s time had long passed.

Other stuff: The James Polk House is in Columbia, Tennessee, but it’s not where he died. That home was torn down in 1901. Instead, it’s a home from 1816 where Polk lived for a time. James and Sarah Polk are entombed on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

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Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower

President #12, C-SPAN Historians ranking #29

He’s Tanned, Rough, and Ready

ztaylorWhat can be said about a man who was President for just 16 months? What can be said about a President who never held any other political office in his life? What can be said about a man who likely never voted in his life until he was elected President? What can be said about a man who almost went directly from battlefield success to the White House?

As it turns out, not much. John S. D. Eisenhower, son of another general turned President, tries to give us a look at the life of the third man to parlay military success (after Washington and Jackson) into the Presidency. Unfortunately, Taylor’s term in office was brief, most of his papers were destroyed in the Civil War, and his greatest accomplishments occurred in a war that happened before mass communications (in the form of the telegraph) had taken hold.

Eisenhower did not get the most interesting President to write about, but he tries his best. The book works best if you are interested in military history, or the particular ins and outs of battlefield strategy. But at the end of the book, Taylor remains something of a cipher.

This is not to say that the life of Zachary Taylor is not worth examining. His military career spanned the two wars that the U.S. fought in after the Revolution and before the Civil War: The War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Taylor was also the father-in-law, albeit briefly, of Jefferson Davis.

Taylor was born on November 24, 1784 in Orange County, Virginia, but that was only because his mother was too far along in her pregnancy to accompany her husband, Richard, to his new property (a reward for his Revolutionary War service) in Kentucky, in what would become Louisville.

Although young Zachary Taylor received little formal education, he was able to read and write acceptably. In 1808, Taylor followed in his father’s footsteps and became a soldier, getting a commission as a first lieutenant.

But in 1809, Taylor’s military career almost ended because of one of the most colossal errors committed by an American commander in peacetime. Taylor had been transfered to New Orleans, where James Wilkinson, a brigadier general, was in command. The oppressive heat of New Orleans was making most under his command ill.

The Secretary of War ordered Wilkinson to move his troops north to Natchez, where conditions were more favorable. But, Wilkinson moved the force south to a spot called Terre Aux Bouefs. This place was even hotter and more humid than New Orleans. And there was even less food. The soldiers began to die by the score.

Finally, Wilkinson (who had likely moved the soldiers south because there was money in it for him) decided to move whatever soldiers were left to Natchez. And nearly all of the remaining soldiers perished on that trip. What of Zachary Taylor? He was fortunate in that he got sick almost as soon as he arrived and he was sent back home to Louisville to recover.

(During his Army career, Wilkinson also served as a spy for Spain,  was a co-conspirator with Aaron Burr to commit treason, had numerous mistresses, and took countless bribes. Yet, he was never successfully court martialed.)

During the War of 1812, Taylor fought in the West. He made a name for himself when he successfully defended Fort Harrison (in present day Indiana near Terre Haute) from an assault by an allied force of Indians. Taylor was made a brevet major for his actions. However, Taylor saw little action after Fort Harrison as most of the fighting in the War of 1812 occurred near the U.S.-Canada border. Taylor asked to be transferred to that theater, but he stayed in the West.

When the War of 1812 ended though, the Army was reduced in size and Taylor was demoted back down to captain. Taylor took this as a sign to leave the Army, and he did. He went back to Louisville to work on his plantation, which proved to be a very lucrative endeavor for him.

But, the Army would keep calling Taylor back. Taylor always answered the call, serving in various frontier posts. In 1820, Taylor moved his family with him to Louisiana. Tragically, he saw two of his young children die of malaria there in a span of four months.

By 1832, Taylor had worked his way up in the military to the rank of  lieutenant colonel. At this time, the U.S. engaged in a rather pointless and bloody affair called the Black Hawk War. Black Hawk was the name of a Sauk Indian chief who tried to halt the gradual takeover of his people’s land in Illinois by white Americans. Both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln would fight in this war, which was really more of a chase by the Army to catch Black Hawk. After a few months, Black Hawk was captured and all but 50 of his men were killed, either by the Army or by the Sioux.

Davis, a lieutenant serving under Taylor, had grown fond of his commander’s daughter Sarah. However, Taylor refused to let his daughter marry an Army officer. The two ended up courting in secret, and eventually wed in 1835, by which time Davis had resigned his commission. However, Sarah Taylor died soon after her marriage of malaria.

While fighting against Seminoles in Florida, Taylor earned his nickname of “Old Rough and Ready” because he would always be out on the battlefield with his troops. Taylor drove his troops hard, but no harder than he would drive himself. Because of his actions in Florida, Taylor had become Brigadier General Zachary Taylor.

Taylor would later find himself commanding troops at Fort Jesup near what is the border today between Louisiana and Texas. In 1845, Taylor was ordered by President James Polk to move his troops to a point south of the Nueces River in what was then the village of Corpus Christi, Texas.

The point of this maneuver was for the U.S. to tell Mexico just where they believed the border between Texas and Mexico was. According to Mexico, the border was on the north side of the Nueces. But Polk wanted to establish a U.S. presence south of the Nueces, and, if possible, as far south as the Rio Grande. (The river has been expanded into a bay in recent times.)

At first, Polk attempted to negotiate a settlement with Mexico, but the Mexicans would not sell the U.S. the disputed territory. So, Taylor’s troops marched further south to the Rio Grande, right across from the Mexican town of Matamoros. On April 26, 1846, Mexican soldiers fired at and killed some of Taylor’s men. The news was sent back to Washington. And by May 13, Congress had declared war on Mexico.

Taylor spent much of the war along the U.S.-Mexico border. After capturing Monterrey, Taylor hoped that the U.S. government would just follow a strategy of waiting around for Mexico to surrender. But Mexico wouldn’t surrender. Eventually, Polk, on the advice of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, ordered General Winfield Scott (who was already a declared candidate for President in 1848) to lead an amphibious assault on the port of Veracruz, with the eventual takeover of Mexico City.

However, such an invasion required Taylor to give up some of his best soldiers to Scott. While the attack on Veracruz was successful for the U.S., Mexican president Santa Anna decided that his last best hope was to attack what was left of Taylor’s forces, which were now in a place called Buena Vista.

The Battle of Buena Vista (fought in February of 1847 near the city of Saltillo, Mexico), saw over 670 American officers killed and an estimated 1,500 volunteer soldiers desert. But, the Americans won as the Mexican Army was spent after a long march through the Mexican Desert. The war was essentially over. The U.S. added most of present day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and California.

Taylor ended up being the hero of the war for the Americans. His plain dress (he rarely wore a full uniform) and easy manner endeared him to his men. Although the Mexican War proved to be unpopular as it was being fought, the American people still wanted a hero.

In 1848, there would be an election. Polk had promised to serve only one term, so the race was wide open. It’s not clear when Taylor became interested in running for President. He had made few political statements during his military career.

Taylor wanted to be drafted to become President. He didn’t want to have to run for office. It’s also quite possible that he had no idea how to run for office. No one knew which party Taylor belonged to.

The Whig Party, seeing a chance to win the White House, sent a delegation to Louisiana to get Taylor to declare himself a Whig. After that, Taylor was able to win the nomination in June of 1848. At the time, parties sent letters to the nominees informing them of the selection. Taylor did not respond for an entire month. However, Taylor was not hesitant to run. Instead, the local postmaster had refused to deliver the letter to Taylor because it had insufficient postage and Taylor had left instructions that he would not pay postage due. Eventually, a second letter was sent and Taylor began his race for the White House. Millard Fillmore, the state comptroller for New York, was given the Vice Presidential nomination.

The Democrats would nominate another soldier, Lewis Cass. Cass however had also served in the government both as a Cabinet member and a Senator.

Taylor did not campaign much. He hoped that his personal popularity and a general dissatisfaction with the Democrats (who had been in power almost since Jefferson’s election) would carry the day. Taylor was right. He won 47.3% of the popular vote, besting Cass and third party candidate Martin Van Buren. The Electoral Vote tally was 163-127.

General Taylor was now President Taylor. En route to Washington, he was on a steamship that carried Whig Party leader (and political rival) Henry Clay. When Taylor came up to Clay to pay his respects, the Kentucky senator brushed him off, not knowing who he was. Clay tried to apologize, but Taylor just moved on.

Outgoing President Polk feared that a political novice like Taylor would be easily swayed by Congressional Whigs. Polk also worried that Taylor was not committed to adding the newly won territory from Mexico as states. (Polk would have bigger problems as he died four months after leaving office.)

Taylor immediately faced the problem that the new territories would be a political landmine because of the issue of slavery. Southern Slave interests demanded that any free state be admitted with a slave state to preserve a balance in the Senate. But Taylor’s party, the Whigs (at least the Northerners), were backing something called the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in any of the new territories.

Soon after Taylor took office, California (it’s the big state on the left) was telling Washington that it was ready for statehood. California, despite having numerous Southerners work on its first Constitution, was going to prohibit slavery. So, there was a demand to find another state suitable to add as a slave state.

However, nearly all of the territory taken from Mexico was unsuitable for slavery. New Mexico and Arizona and Utah were not well suited for Southern-style plantations.

Congress was ready to come up with a carefully crafted compromise that would take care of the situation. California would be admitted as a free state, a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law would be adopted, other territories would vote on whether or not to be free or slave states, and the public slave trade in the District of Columbia would be stopped.

Clay wished to put all these measures into one big bill, called the Omnibus Act. It had little chance of passing as there were too many controversial ideas in one piece of legislation. Also, Taylor had indicated he would veto the bill.

The paradox of Taylor was, despite owning slaves and profiting greatly from their labor, that he had no desire to spread slavery into any new territory in the United States. Why this is so is unclear, according to Eisenhower.

The Omnibus Act was debated through the spring of 1850, but no final vote was taken in Congress before it adjourned for the summer. Taylor stayed in Washington for the Independence Day celebrations.

During the numerous functions Taylor attended, he gulped down fresh fruits and cold milk. This turned out to give the President a bad case of gastroenteritis. And then there were complications from the heat in Washington. Taylor caught a fever and died on July 9, 1850. Fillmore became President. In the fall, the Omnibus Act was separated into smaller bills and was passed and became known as the Compromise of 1850.

Some historians believe that the Compromise of 1850 paved the way for the Civil War. Others believe it served to delay the inevitable war between the free and slave states. Another group of historians believe that if Taylor had vetoed the Compromise of 1850, he could have used his personal popularity as a war hero, and a Southerner, to work out some amicable solution that would have prevented the Civil War.

The last theory is hard for me (and Eisenhower) to believe. Zachary Taylor may have been popular, but his popularity was no match for the enmity brewing in the United States over slavery. Taylor had not shown any ability to work with the political leaders of his own party to accomplish much of anything.

It almost seemed that Taylor just sort of stumbled his way into the White House because it seemed like the thing to do. Much of his own papers were destroyed during the Civil War. Taylor was the stereotypical old soldier who did  just fade away.

Other stuff: If you are looking for Zachary Taylor memorials in the U.S., you don’t have a big selection. Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, which is part of the US Veterans Affairs, is the site of Taylor’s grave. Taylor’s wife, Margaret, is buried there as well. The cemetery is closed to further interments. It is located in Louisville.

The only major international agreement signed during Taylor’s Administration was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (Taylor signed it three days before he died.) The treaty prohibited the U.S. or Great Britain from building a canal through Central America unilaterally. Theodore Roosevelt had to work around that. It wasn’t that hard.

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